I spent the first few years of our church plant in my small town trying to meet with people the same way I did when I was on staff at a church in urban/suburban Southern California. I scheduled meetings at coffee shops and at the church office. I met with people weekly for months and always left the meetings feeling like I wasn’t making any headway. The meetings felt lifeless and forced. It was exhausting for everyone present but I didn’t know another way.
Then someone invited me to go fishing. It felt wrong to fish when I was supposed to be “working” at the church. But I went with it. I had been wanting to really talk about the gospel with the guy who invited me for some time and the coffees weren’t cutting it. We got in the boat and as soon as we got on the water he started asking deep questions about Jesus and church. I was blown away.
A little while later, another guy in our town who was a good friend asked me to go hunting. I didn’t hunt and I was busy with a “million” things going on in our church plant, but I really cared about this guy and, again, the coffees had got us nowhere. Before the sun had even come up, he began asking deep questions about Jesus. This was after six months of meeting every week and seemingly getting nowhere.
I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I was starting to catch on. Maybe people in my small town didn’t want to meet for coffee like people in Southern California seemingly had. Maybe people in my small town who were checking out Christianity didn’t want to come hang out in a church office. Maybe, if I was going to meet with them and have significant discussions about how great Jesus is, I would have to break outside of my normal meeting modus operandi.
What I was learning was that I needed to be the one who felt uncomfortable in the meeting. Here’s what I mean: We were going to end up discussing things that I really understood and already believed. This was already a lot for someone considering being a Christian to take in. Additionally, I was a pastor and a lot of folks were instantly intimidated by meeting with me. To this day when I say, “Would you like to hang out” it is translated, “You’re in trouble. Let’s talk about it.” Meeting over coffee was not something that people in my town really did. They drink coffee, but it’s usually from a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru. Finally, meeting at a church was my “home court,” but it was another really intimidating place for people new to Christianity.
If one of us was going to be uncomfortable about where we met, it should be me. Therefore, I needed to find where they would be most comfortable to talk about deep issues. Where would they naturally want to open up? Where would it feel like “home court” for them?
I began to realize that this is actually what Jesus did. He didn’t invite Peter, the local fisherman, to come to the synagogue for a meeting. He got in his boat and went fishing. Now, Jesus didn’t take everyone fishing because Jesus was obsessed with fishing and wanted to use this discipleship as an excuse for his favorite hobby. No, Jesus fished with Peter because that was Peter’s comfort zone. Jesus invited Peter into gospel ministry by saying that he would be made into a “fisher of men,” something Peter would have instantly understood at multiple levels.
Eventually, this became the normal way I met with people. I listened to what they loved to do and agreed to come along with them, knowing that a good conversation about what matters most was bound to happen. I had to get over the feeling that I was doing something wrong by not drinking coffee as a part of discipleship, something some of you may really struggle with! I had to get over the anxiety about what people would say if they heard I had gone fishing or hunting during “work hours” knowing that, as a church planter, my job is to reach people and make much of Jesus.
So, how does this apply to you? What do people in your small town like to do for fun? How can you join in? Are you creating unnecessary barriers between you and them before you ever get to the gospel because you are having them meet on your turf? Don’t stay stuck in the office or the coffee shop if that is not the best way to love and engage people in your town.